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A New National Park In Maine?

New U.S. Park? Maine Bid Draws High-Profile Debate

Should a national park that's bigger than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined be established in the eastern United States? The idea has some high-profile supporters?but is it the best option for the future of Maine's storied North Woods? Many don't think so, particularly local residents who have enjoyed hunting and other traditional uses of the forest for generations.

... "It's the more traditional forest land owners that have been putting land up for sale," [Nature Conservancy Maine Chapter spokesman Tom] Abello said. "The new owners are generally timber investors, mutual funds, endowments?the types of investors who have a shorter horizon for management and ownership. Land will be coming on the market more frequently than in the past."

The "land churn" caused by such short term investment ownership could promote fragmentation and development, conservationists fear.

My political ecology instincts are making me suspicious of this proposal. While they bring in a new industry -- tourism -- parks tend to be disruptive of local livelihoods. In Africa, the creation of nature reserves has been a major engine of disposession of the native people, barring them from traditional uses of the land and setting it aside for the entertainment of foreigners. Elephants trample crops with impunity because regulations prohibit dealing with them, since they're what tourists come to see (and shoot).

How much this is applicable to the Maine situation is open to question. While we frequently underestimate the importance of access to wildlands for the rural poor (one of my fellow grad students is doing her dissertation on non-timber forest products), it's also true that New Englanders by and large aren't practicing local-environment-based subsistence strategies. The value of the forest is from its use in logging (which, like most extractive industry, is a notoriously poor basis for a local economy) and recreation such as snowmobiling and hunting.

This feeds my general wariness about the tendency -- too common among political ecologists -- to say "the local people are always right." This article gives an excellent representation of the feeling that the park promoters are interlopers with no real attachment to or knowledge of the land they want to "save."

There's also a property question. In the article I linked to in the last paragraph, park promoter Roxanne Quimby defends her purchase of land for conservation on the basis of the "free market." She's responding to the locals' feeling that, regardless of who owns the deed, the woods around them are in some sense their woods. Private property is not absolute. Even if you can't walk on it or take stuff from it, the land around you can be appreciated aesthetically and used to shape your sense of place. Quimby, on the other hand, feels that the north woods should be partly the property of all Americans, that we would all lose out if certain decisions were made by the legal owners of the land, that our cultural connection to it -- for example, through the writings of Thoreau -- extend the woods' value beyond the people who happen to live near it. She explicitly states that she wants to "donate this land to the people of America." North woods residents see what has happened with Acadia National Park, which has been overrun with tourists because it's formally the property of the whole country, and don't want to give up their quasi-ownership.

I'm more sympathetic to the alternate proposal being pushed by the Maine government. I've expressed skepticism before about the efficacy of the land trust and conservation easement model of conservation, but it does have the advantage of not creating a sharp boundary between used and preserved land, allowing the two to integrate.


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